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Meaning of 'opener' has changed


05/04/07 By Howard Meyerson The Grand Rapids Press [email protected]

I was waist-deep in the river, stepping gingerly amid the rocks, when it struck me how different opening day had become.

The most obvious change was that I was fishing alone. I mean all alone at a spot on the Rogue River that usually attracts a number of anglers.

Opening day in southern Michigan used to be the gateway for trout fishing. But the rules changed in 2001 to allow year-round catch and release fishing, making the opener significant only to those who keep their fish.

While the traditions still thrive on many northern rivers, its specialness seems to have eroded.

River high and cloudy

Now, granted, the river was high and turbid, up 18 inches due to rain. That's enough to spook a lot of folks.

It will change easy, thigh-deep wading into work for longitudinally challenged guys like me. It means you fish closer to the bank or risk the big float.

I began with big streamer patterns on a sink-tip line and roll-cast, hoping to bump something. Anything.

As openers go, it was a spectacular day: blue skies, morning cool, with temperatures ever rising. I got into a working rhythm -- casting, twitching, letting the fly drift, then stripping in and starting again.

It was quiet and peaceful, not something I expected on the season opener. And it had been that way almost from the start.

Devoid of anglers

At 8:30 a.m., a historically popular stretch along the river nearly was devoid of anglers. Where a dozen once fished, there were none. No lounge chairs. No grandkids. No elder tales.

I skipped from that to other traditional haunts and found just a smattering of anglers.

"This used to be a big deal," said Todd Mazurek, who was out fishing with his family where they have opened for years. "But it's not anymore. It's kind of depressing."

The Mazureks used to arrive at river's edge before midnight the night before and make it an all-nighter camping along the banks. But that changed once the state changed the rules.

"A couple of weeks ago, when the weather was nice, it was packed out here," Mazurek said. "The big fish that hadn't been messed with before the opener in the past have now been messed with.

"So I said: 'I'm going to get my sleep.' "

It was that way the week before, too. I'd spent a day float fishing the Sable River near Freesoil with a friend. We couldn't hook a fish to save our lives, but it proved a fabulous early-spring float.

But our presence had disturbed a couple of residents along the river who thought the opener was still a week away and let us know. In fact, catch and release fishing is allowed there for trout all year long.

While making the rounds before I wet a line this morning, I'd stopped in to visit with Glen Blackwood at his fly shop, the Great Lakes Fly Fishing Co. in Rockford.

Blackwood has seen 30 openers come and go.

"There is still a tradition up north if you want to fish the AuSable, but for local anglers, who fish the Rogue year round, it's just another day," he said. "What with rain and muddy water, many will stay home and take care of their lawn."

Blackwood believes there are other factors, too. Fly-fishing retailers have worked to extend their selling season by educating anglers about the potential to fly fish all year long. If not for trout, then for smallmouth or northern pike or steelhead and salmon.

That means trout is no longer the only fly fishing pursuit. And for the younger set, he said, it may not even be appealing.

"The traditional trout fisherman still finds passion fishing trout. But for the next generation that is brought up listening to WLAV, on hard-charging NASCAR and video games, the excitement of a chrome, 10-pound steelhead far outweighs that of a 12-inch trout rising to a Hendrickson spinner.

"More younger guys are going that way. They don't fish trout but when they do they are trophy fishing and don't want a big numbers day of 10- to 14-inch fish. They want to swing for the fence and put one 18- to 20-inch fish in the boat."

Bob Braendle, a fly fishing instructor at the store this day, adds that the younger crowd is also no longer single-focused. They have more choices. They may hike, bike, fish and camp. On a weekend away, they do a little of this and that.

"There are a lot of guys out on mountain bikes that weren't 10 years ago," Braendle said. "There are a lot of things you can do on a day like this. It's not just opening day anymore."

I had to chuckle, looking out the window at the bike rack on my car, its trunk loaded with hiking, biking and fishing gear.

But out on the stream I wasn't laughing. I had to confess to a mixed reaction. Fewer people out fishing meant a day of having the river to myself, but it didn't guarantee any more fish and probably meant less. And then there was the loss of tradition that got replaced by improved access to the fish in the river.

Those are ideas that don't necessarily mesh that easily, like mixing mathematics and love.

I reeled in my streamer and planned to move.Twenty minutes had passed. I'd had nary a bite. But figured I would have no trouble finding another place to fish.
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